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Google opens Chinese AI lab, says 'science has no borders’

‘We want to work with the best AI talent, wherever that talent is.’

Google Announce New Brand Name 'Gu Ge' In Beijing Photo by Guang Niu/Getty Images

The fight between tech companies for AI talent is fierce and global, with Google announcing today that it will create a new research lab in China dedicated solely to artificial intelligence.

Google already has similar facilities in New York, Toronto, London, and Zurich, but says this will be the first such center in Asia. It’ll be used to attract local talent from around the region and will conduct “basic AI research” in a number of areas. According to a report from Bloomberg, the Google AI China Center will consist of “a small group of researchers supported by several hundred China-based engineers.” The company says it’s already hired “top experts,” with respected AI veteran — and Google Cloud chief scientist — Fei-Fei Li leading and coordinating work.

It’s notable that the new facility is being launched even though Google’s services are not available in China. Despite being booted out years ago, the company has been slowly been building its presence in the country, and seems to view AI as a convenient way in. Chinese citizens may not be able to use Google search, but Chinese developers can take advantage of the company’s popular AI tools, like TensorFlow. Encouraging this will help Google build connections to local businesses, as well as demonstrate to a wary Chinese government that its resources can still be put to good use.

A blog post by Fei-Fei Li announcing the new lab strikes a similar tone of harmony and mutual benefit. “Besides publishing its own work, the Google AI China Center will also support the AI research community by funding and sponsoring AI conferences and workshops, and working closely with the vibrant Chinese AI research community,” writes Li.

Most importantly, the lab should attract local AI talent who might not otherwise have the opportunity to work for Google. In the race to develop cutting-edge artificial intelligence, many worry that America is handicapping itself with strict immigration policies, and creating a local hub seems like an obvious way to sidestep this problem. Earlier this year, Alphabet chairman Eric Schmidt said the US was at risk of falling behind in AI research — blaming, in part, government strategy.

Google’s new lab will face fierce competition attracting researchers, though, especially as local giants like Tencent, Baidu, and Alibaba pour more and more money into the sector. The US company can’t back down from the fight though, and with this lab acknowledges that work to develop cutting-edge AI is truly global.

As Li writes in her blog post: “I believe AI and its benefits have no borders. Whether a breakthrough occurs in Silicon Valley, Beijing or anywhere else, it has the potential to make everyone’s life better for the entire world. As an AI first company, this is an important part of our collective mission. And we want to work with the best AI talent, wherever that talent is, to achieve it.”